There and Back Again Part 3: the bit where we are back again… ish

This is the final installment in a three part series on staying/being active while travelling with kids. While my kids are a bit older (11 and 14), we have been canoeing or kayaking and hiking together since they could walk or hold a paddle. Parts 1 and 2 of this installment are two tales of our travels this summer, the “There” part of “There and Back Again”, about biking the Via Appia Antica in Rome and kayaking a caldera in the hills above Rome. In the “Back Again” part of “There and Back Again”, we return to the states and visit the old family stomping grounds in “Up North”, e.g. the northern part of the lower peninsula of Michigan AKA the top of the mitten.

Back into my childhood, since I was a baby in a stroller, and before that when my mother was a young woman and then a teen and then a child, herself, our family has gone to the community of Elk Rapids, Michigan every summer almost without fail. It goes back to the late 1940’s, our relationship with this area. The town of Elk Rapids is on a bit of land between Elk Lake and Lake Michigan. From Elk Lake, you can take a boat along a “Chain of Lakes”, traveling from one community to another, past folks’ houses that bump up on the water, past restaurants and convenience stores that have boat docs as well as car parks. Maybe someday we will try that with a kayak, and get picked up on the other end.

Some years, we make sure to bike the easy beautiful 9 mile circumference of Mackinac Island, which allows no motorized vehicles but only horses and bicycles. But this summer, we did what has become a new guaranteed activity: a bike trip on local trails with Son 2 who is a budding cyclist with a kit of his own at 11 years old. We even brought his own road bike from home, since it fits in the back of our family vehicle nicely with the wheels off.

The thing I failed to adequately predict was exactly how much faster than me he would be with me on a rented bike and him on his very own, me with my adult body pushing against a sometimes fierce headwind and him cutting through it like a knife. It didn’t bum me out much, but it sure did slow him down. He loves to cover 17 miles in an hour, wind cutting through the slats in his helmet to dry the sweat. We did it in two and a half hours, including breaks to chat with people along the way, such as a kid who plaintively asked if they could be best friends with Son 2.

Since some of you might want to use the same trail we took this year in the future, I will tell you a bit about the trail and the amenities as well as the experience. The trail is the Leelenau Trail north of Traverse City. The Leelenau Peninsula is famous for its wineries and agriculture, as well as its cute vacation towns which have drawn tourists since the mid-20th century.

An image of a sign shows the Leelenau trail, with terminuses at the southern end of the West Arm of the Grand Traverse Bay in downtown Traverse City, and in Suttons Bay about halfway up the Leelenau Peninsula. This image was taken halfway along the trail, as the “You Are Here” label indicates.

It connects TC and Suttons Bay over 17 miles of only occassional road crossing and virtually no sharing a road with cars. Suttons Bay is a town filled with boutiques and cottages and a good public library and some truly superb ice cream. It also pairs nicely with the Bike-and-Ride bus routes which have room for as many as 11 bikes: 3 on the front and 8 in the back half of a converted school bus. This makes it easy to ride the trail one way (either way) and just bike one way. Both towns are on the lake, so there’s no elevation difference in how the ride goes for either direction. I didn’t think to ask the driver, but it occurs to me now that, looking at the racks, I am not sure whether the buses can transport full-size trikes or recumbent bikes, both of which are sometimes used by folks with balance issues or with seating requirements that preclude using a typical bicycle.

We parked our car near the bus station in downtown Traverse City just a few blocks from the lake; this is one of several places where the buses for the Leelenau trail route depart from and return to. It’s also the only place where you get a good mile or so ride alongside the lake on a TART trail before you connect to the Leelenau peninsula.

Left: Son 2 is pretty excited about this whole prospect. At this point, we’ve just crossed the street from the bus station to the lake-side park and its corresponding ped/bike trail. His bright red road bike and purple and black and white biking kit and huge grin mean he’s ready to go. Right top: A view of Lake Michigan with the TART Trail sign showing the direction to the Leelenau Trail and other destinations. Right middle: Bikes selfie! The author, with the trail behind her, the lake to one side, and the car road on the other. Right bottom: a view of Lake Michigan with sailboats in the distance, a narrow strip of sand beach in the foreground, and white fluffy clouds dotting a blue sky.

As we transferred from the TART trail to the Leelenau Trail, Son 2 decided that he’d grown quite a bit since his bike was last adjusted (it had been a month or so since he rode it, and it’s been a growth spurt kind of a summer for him). Fortunately, there was a bike repair station with a set of basic bike tools and air pump at the Cherry Lane trailhead which made short work of the adjustment (image below). I didn’t check to see if there was a chainbreaker as well as the basic toolset, but probably most people who could break and repair a chain would have those tools and parts on them, regardless. It does have struts on which you can hang the bike to work, and the tool set retracts into the metal shelter when you’re finished. It’s a nice touch to find on the trail about 2 miles in.

Once you hit the trail itself, there are mile markers every so often, not only every mile but also at points between miles so that you know how far you’ve come and how far you have yet to go. The trail moves through woods, through fields filled with cherry trees or other fruits, through vineyards–some well-established and some just getting started–, through corn fields, past homes. At one point, it passes a retirement home and in that area, the trail fills with older pedestrians, some helping wheel chair using neighbors get a bit of trail time in and others taking a bit of a wander down the trail. There are benches roughly every half mile, some in the shade and some with views of the peninsula’s rolling hills, some commercial and some a kid’s Girl Scout or Boy Scout badge project, some marked as paid for by trail management and some clearly put out by whomever owns the neighboring property. Some homeowners ignore the trail. Others decorate to welcome cyclists and runners and walkers. Some even put snacks or water out for trail users. One, memorably, had a cooler of ice cold water and a watertight transparent box containing a journal and a pen which functioned as a kind of guestbook of trail users who had stopped to refresh themselves.

Top left: decorations with multiple American flags strung over and planted next to the trail. Top right: a cooler containing ice cold water kindly left at a trailside table about halfway between TC and Suttons Bay. Bottom left: a guest book with pen inside a water-tight container, signed by trail users. Bottom center: a bike handle protrudes into a view of shallow rolling hills covered in crops. Bottom right: the author smiling, taking a selfie while riding through woods with the sundappled trail receding into the distance.

At the water cooler pitstop, a pair of older women cycling the route on good bikes in comfortable kits offered to take our picture. At first, Son 2 was shy, but he really does enjoy these outings we take together and he wanted something to remember us both by. By this point, my hair had been soaked with sweat under my helmet and dried again, a cycle that repeated many times before the ride was over. The same was true for Son 2. He referred to this stage of physical activity as the “crunchy hair” point. As we neared Suttons Bay, we began to see distant ridges behind flatter marsh and wetland. Widlflowers lined the trail and sumac groves reared up, red-tipped. These descriptions are as good a caption as any for the images, below.

At the end of the trail in Suttons Bay, everything becomes town shockingly fast. Antique candy stores, cafes, sandwich shops, restaurants, gimcrack stores, and yard ornament shops pepper the streets. We hopped off our bikes, locked them up, and took a walk. My butt insisted I not get on a rented bike again for quite some time, and bring my own bike and saddle next year. After a bit of a toddle, we headed towards the Suttons Bay Library from whence we would catch the bus back to TC. Along the way, we stopped for ice cream and I was amazed to see Lemon Poppyseed and Lavendar ice cream. We tried samples, and they were superb and unusual, but I reverted to my favorite and hard to find Black Cherry. Cold things with sugars and fats after a long bike ride pushing against a headwind in the sun on a hot day? Yes, please! The tip jar read “Tipping: Bad for cows! Good for us!” We finished our snack and walked the two blocks over to the library which sits on a small hill overlooking the Bay in question. Across the bay, the sun shone on the orderly rows of a vineyard, while people and pets played on the grass and sand, sailboats in the small marina raising their masts above the water. We had timed it perfectly: the bus pulled up just as we arrived at the library, and the driver helped load all the bikes. All of these can be seen in the images, below.

Another successful outing, seeing parts of the world it would not have been so easy (or pleasant, or invigorating) to see by car. If you’re ever up in this area, I recommend checking out the TART trails. In fact, for these trails, and the kayaking in Rome, and the riding in Rome, we wouldn’t have found them if we hadn’t been actively looking for something active and exercise-y to do that would also help us get to know these areas a little differently.

I am reminded of an annual event in Lansing, Michigan, where I used to live, called Be A Tourist In Your Own Town. And while we did these activities in places that were There and Back Again, we have increasingly begun to look for these kinds of things in our own area near St. Louis Missouri, on the Illinois side of the Mississippi. There is a wonderful rails-to-trails system, there are many festivals, and there are loads of cultural events related to physical activity that welcome various skill levels from cycling to acro-yoga to dancing. The trail system on the Missouri side even offers Juneteenth history tours and other black history tours by cycle. Integrating activity with my kids–and, when he is able to join us or we are able to join him, my spouse–into travel and into our lives at home has become a critically important part of how we experience the world.

I am sure this is the case for many of you. And we had to build these habits over the years, until the thing we ask when we travel to a place is “So…. bikes?” or “So… hikes?” or “So… kayaks?” Someday, we will have to amend them. But I hope we hang onto them. Because they are delightful, whether we do it there, or back again.